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On the Land in Umbria - The Mediterranean Diet

Anne Robichaud

What do the Acropolis, Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, the Old City of Havana, Dubrovnik, the Great Barrier Reef, Yellowstone Park - and pasta, tomatoes and olive oil have in common?

They've all been cited by UNESCO as world heritage treasures. The places named are World Heritage sites, but there is another part of the World Heritage list that is less-known. It is called the "intangibles" and includes cultural traditions such as dance, song, textile weaving traditions, religious processions, and festivals. Italy's two "intangibles", Sardinian pastoral songs and the Sicilian marionette theater are now joined by another: the Mediterranean diet. At the request of Italy, Spain, Greece and Morocco, UNESCO recently declared the Mediterranean diet an "intangible cultural heritage" due to the important role it plays in good health.

As Mattia LaMantia, noted chef, explains, "The Mediterranean Diet, in the true sense of the word, has always existed. I take it back to the diet used by the farmers - feed yourself well using seasonal products."

Mediterranean Diet

Here in Italy, we also call the Mediterranean diet "la cucina genuina." The cooking of Italy is as varied as the number of dialects - hundreds of variations on the "goodness theme" - but all of them highlight the delicious and simple flavors of fresh seasonal ingredients, grown regionally and transformed simply without sophistication in either methods or implements used. "La cucina povera" is another appellation because as Signor Riccardi, noted Assisi antiquarian, recently told me, "There are no two ways about it: the best cooking derives from that of the poor people who could only cook using what they grew on their small plots of land."

He summed up the Mediterranean diet. "Not only do the Italians thrive on the Mediterranean diet, they honor it. Over the span of centuries, the foods of the Mediterranean diet have been immortalized in Italian art, from the 1st-century A.D frescoes of Pompeii to the Neapolitan crèche scenes."

In Naples recently, I marveled over the crib scene artisans creating their masterpieces in Via San Gregorio Armeno. Painted terracotta fruit and vegetable vendors, cheese-makers, innkeepers, fishmongers honor the Christ Child - all in the Baroque dress of 18th-century Naples, when the crib scene was elevated to high art, thanks to the patronage of King Charles III. Foods abound in Neapolitan crib scenes: it would be the Christ Child after all, who would alleviate the famine of the Neapolitan poor. Piles of lemons and oranges and every imaginable fruit, mounded baskets of mushrooms, tomatoes and vegetables of all sorts, strings of round cheeses, dangling juicy salamis and prosciutti, wines, olive oils, and wicker baskets of bread are meticulously sculpted and painted. The Mediterranean diet stars in the presepe napoletano (Neapolitan crèche).

The Mediterranean diet is not just a way of eating. It is a way of lifelong living.

Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2011. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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